Safety of Electrical Workers

Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2014

THOUGH we do not take electricity for granted due to outages, yet energy is at the heart of everyday living. What we take for granted is the national grid system — transmission lines, high-tension cables, substations, pylons, transformers and the dangling maze of naked wires visible in every street.

We seldom think about those who keep the grid system running even when we spot a lineman perched precariously on a vehicle-mounted ladder, examining a pole, repairing the cables, or meddling with dangerous-looking circuit boxes. Unless one day at the breakfast table we read in the morning paper that 25 linemen died in the line of duty within two weeks.

The news recently of the workers’ rally of the Lahore Electric Supply Company demanding investigation into these preventable deaths and enforcement of safe working conditions is the tip of the iceberg. The underbelly of the work structure supporting the edifice of economic growth pulsates with contractual, informal labour deprived of social protection, including protection from fatal accidents and injuries at workplaces.

Line installers and repairmen encounter serious hazards on the job, considered one of the 10 most dangerous occupations in the world. The risks involved in installation, operation, management and maintenance of power supply systems have led to ever evolving international sets of standards, codes and regulations to ensure safety of workers.

Electrical workers’ unions have been highlighting the issue of safety. In October 2013, the Pakistan Wapda Hydroelectric Workers’ Union stated that more than 150 electrical workers die annually, and demanded implementation of safety regulations, provision of standard equipment and professional training of a young labour force. Poor supervision by officers was cited as another reason for death and injuries of linemen.

According to an electrical engineer, all electric supply companies in Pakistan use internationally adopted IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Standards in the installations. The IEEE has over 395,000 members in 160 countries, including Pakistan. But “each company also has its own policy and rules for Health, Safety, Environment and Quality”. To what extent these are implemented is another matter.

In addition to safety standards, the skill, knowledge and training of electrical workers is another crucial factor relevant to the safe and competent performance of electrical work. In developed countries, electrical workers undergo specialised training before they are issued licences by the relevant authority. Standards are maintained for protective equipment and the workers are provided with safety gear such as rubber insulating gloves and sleeves, leather protectors, personal climbing equipment, dielectric footwear and fire-resistant clothing.

Till about a decade ago, power generation, transmission and distribution were the responsibilities of the government under Wapda and the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation. KESC was privatised in 2005 and since 2008 is working under a new management. Wapda was bifurcated in 2007 and power generation, transmission and distribution were handed over to Pepco that now manages nine distribution companies, four generation companies and the National Transmission Despatch Company.

According to the Private Power and Infrastructure Board, there are 31 private power projects. Pri­va­­­tisation is considered the catchword for efficiency and profit. Corpo­ratisation also conjures up a lean, efficient workforce well-cared by a management committed to labour compliance. Realities on the ground, however, in­­di­­­­­­cate a different scenario.

Privatisation of KESC led to retrenchment of permanent emp­loyees and induction of contract workers in large numbers. “In KESC [K-Electric] there are about 5,000 to 6,000 permanent workers entitled to facilities and earning up to Rs30,000 per month,” says Ikhlaq Ahmad Khan, chairperson KESC labour union, “and 12,000 to 15,000 workers are on contract who receive about Rs7,000 per month.”

The workers are allegedly not provided with proper protective gear or adequate training. The K-Electric website states that “Since July 2009, 46,055 staff — from all cadres — have gone through sustained safety awareness sessions”. According to Khan, these “sessions” comprise only a one-hour lecture. He also added that contract workers are often not even matriculate as required under the Sindh Electricity Rules 1978.

In Pakistan there are 22 laws related to electricity. Most relevant to the workers are the provincial Electricity Rules 1978 which deal with licensing procedures and requirements for electrical contractors and supervisors and the granting of certificates to wiremen.

Pakistan’s workforce confronts not just lack of labour compliance but suffers from lack of opportunities for human resource development in terms of specialised trainings, competencies and skills.

View article at Dawn: http://www.dawn.com/news/1127493/perilous-wires

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